My vintage dancing friend Cary recently asked me where he could buy reproduction Victorian men’s formal wear. This is a topic I had to research a few months ago for my husband’s wedding suit. Here is what I found:
Victorian Men’s Formal Wear: Tailcoat
For the early part of the Victorian era men wore tailcoats, aka morning coats, all day. By the later half of the Victorian men’s tailcoats were mostly worn in the evening. Black was the only acceptable choice for evening wear because it had a slimming effect and thus made all men look handsome. Besides color, evening coats were left open, to expose a nice white vest and shirt underneath. The appearance of single but usually double breasted buttons on either side of the jacket were purely ornamental.
Coat collars were notched in the V and M shapes for most of the Victorian era. The 1860’s introduced the shawl collar which remained fashionable for only a decade. The most common decoration on lapels were either facings in silk or velvet. Sometimes coat cuffs were trimmed in velvet too.
The length and cut of tailcoats changed from season to season. The main difference between Victorian and modern tailcoats is the fit. Today’s “One size fits all” fitting leaves tailcoats hanging loosely and boxy on the body. Victorian tailcoats were fit snugly on the body using the most advanced tailoring techniques (a lost art today.)
For authenticity you will have to have one made for you. But for a “looks close enough” type suit- nearly any modern tailcoat will do. Stick to black for evening wear with notch collar and decorative buttons. Jos A Bank carries a very nice tuxedo tailcoat that features the higher cut and open front design more accurate of the Victorian era.
Formal Victorian Vest or Waistcoat
Elaborate embroidered waistcoats in fine silk, satin and velvet were the eye candy of men’s Victorian suits. However by the 1860’s only simple cloth or silk black or white (Ivory) vests were the only options. Vests were cut straight across the bottom and featured low V or U shaped necks with or without a shawl collar. Vests were always single breasted with cloth covered or jeweled buttons.
Unfortunately finding formal white vests, especially with a shawl collar is next to impossible. The closest matches are:
www.i-ties.co.uk/ – This one is a long V shape with flat square collar. I’ve seen in worn on men and they look very nice in it.
www.uniformalwearhouse.com – Similar to above. Be sure to get the full back option.
www.oliverbrown.org.uk – Has a long U shaped black waistcoat with shawl collar. They have a few “buff” colored waistcoats for sale from previously hired waistcoats (rentals).
Formal Victorian Men’s Pants
Men’s formal pants haven’t changed to much in the last 100 years. The main difference is the height. Men’s Victorian pants went up and down from belly button to rib rage depending on the fashion of the year. Legs were fitted narrowly and tapered to the ankle. Out-seams featured ribbon braids, inspired by military uniforms, for most of the Victorian era while a single ribbon stripe came about in the late Victorian era.
To make modern pants work for the Victorian era I bought regular flat fronted tuxedo pants, with a ribbon stripe down the sides. Since they need to fit very high on the waist you may want to buy one size up and hold them up with button on suspenders. If possible buy locally (or online with a very good return policy) and try on your pants with your vest. You should be able to move around, raise you arms, and not have a gap show between your vest and pants. I like Jos A Bank for quality pants as well as tailoats.
Victorian Men’s Formal Shirts
Plain front, button down white shirts will work well for your Victorian suit. Some earlier fancier formal shirts had lace frills along the front buttons but these styles are much harder to find today. The most important element of formal Victorian shirts is the collar. Stiffened upright collars appeared in the 1860s and began to display wing tips in the following decade. Turndown collars were occasionally seen in the 1860s and early ’70s.
To replicate this look you could either buy a tall detachable collar made for collarless shirts or simply turn up the collar on a standard dress shirt. A modern wingtip tuxedo shirt (no pleats) will also work quite well and is probably the simplest option although harder to find than pleated shirts.
Formal Men’s Accessories
Shoes– Black cap toe boots and oxford with white spats are the most formal. Find Victorian style men’s boots and shoes online here.
Hats– A tall black top hat made of beaver felt or silk were what every gentlemen wore to formal events and parties. Most modern top hats are made of wool or synthetic felt. These will still work OK for formal events. Just remember to take your hat off indoors to be a true Victorian gentlemen. Shop for hats here.
Gloves– A pair of white or ivory gloves will formalize your outfit. Leave your gloves on at all time except while eating or using the restroom.
Pocket Square – A white silk pocket square held in your chest pocket (never use it) will complete your coordinated look.
Here are some more men’s formal clothing choices for your Victorian to modern day needs: